Kosovo Serbs, Serbian nationalist intellectuals, and officials of the Milošević Regime

This mobilization of the Kosovo Serbs played an important part in the political struggles in late socialist Yugoslavia. Many specialists claim that the mobilization of various groups within this community was inspired, organized, and coordinated by the officials of Milošević’s regime or by Serb nationalist intellectuals, or both. In fact, this was a grassroots mobilization.

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Conflict Background


By Momčilo Pavlović

After the Albanian demonstrations of 1981, the mobilization of Kosovo Serbs began and developed largely in response to changes in the political context and within a political environment that was not totally unfavorable to the action of grassroots groups from this ethnonational group. This mobilization of the Kosovo Serbs played an important part in the political struggles in late socialist Yugoslavia. The controversy and debate revolve around the contention by many specialists that throughout the 1980s Kosovo Serbs were little more than the passive recipients of the actions and attitudes of elites and counterelites. The specialists claim that the mobilization of various groups within this community was inspired, organized, and coordinated by the officials of Milošević’s regime or by Serb nationalist intellectuals, or both. In fact, this was a grassroots mobilization.(41)

The mobilization of Kosovo Serbs, rooted in their discontent with the changing ethnic composition of Kosovo and the post-1966 change in interethnic politics, was initiated and spread principally by various grassroots groups within this community. The grievances of Kosovo Serbs could not translate into collective action in a political system that opposed any reference to their concerns, but they accumulated over time and eventually resulted in a high level of politicization of Kosovo’s Serbs. As a local observer put it, “in the southern socialist autonomous province each and every head of a Serb household who takes himself seriously keeps a library of petitions, appeals, pamphlets and newspaper clippings.”(42) The political change ultimately opened space for the collective action of various groups of Kosovo Serbs. In 1981, protests of Kosovo Albanians swept the autonomous province. As we have seen, a student protest over socioeconomic issues turned into large-scale demonstrations with some calling for a republic of Kosovo, even union with Albania. The government declared a state of emergency, deployed tanks and security forces, closed schools and factories, and suppressed demonstrations. The scale of the protests apparently surprised the federal leadership and raised fears of a major separatist movement. Officials now increasingly paid attention to the complaints alleging inequalities facing the non-Albanian population in terms of the use of language, access to jobs in the state-controlled part of the economy, allocation of public housing, and inadequate protection of their rights and property by the courts and law enforcement agencies. Kosovo’s officials came under much closer scrutiny by the federal leadership, and Albanian-Serb relations in Kosovo ceased to be their exclusive domain. The prevention of Serb emigration and redress of the Serbs’ other concerns now became part of the party’s policy.

The political change raised the expectations of Kosovo Serbs that the authorities would fully address their concerns. Soon, however, many from the community felt that the new policy did not begin to address all of their concerns, and emigration continued. Some believed that high officials in Yugoslavia and Serbia were not aware of the scope of the problem; therefore, they arranged a number of private meetings, sometimes involving large delegations, with officials and other people they thought to be influential. They met, for example, with Nikola Ljubičić, president of Serbia’s state presidency (1982–1984); with party officials in Montenegro; with Svetozar Vukmanović-Tempo, a retired member of Tito’s old guard; with Branko Pešić, a Belgrade mayor; and many others.(43) In most cases the delegations were given a sympathetic hearing and assurances that the party’s policies, including initiatives aimed at halting the emigration of Serbs, would be implemented.

Simultaneously, a growing number of ordinary people, mainly in predominantly Serb settlements, attended local meetings of official political organizations, mostly those of the Socialist Alliance of the Working People (SAWP, formerly the People’s Front), to raise their concerns. In Kosovo Polje, a suburb of Priština with a dominant Serb population, roughly thirty political outsiders regularly debated various issues and forwarded the meetings’ minutes to officials at all levels, from Priština and Kosovo to Serbia and the federation. Although remaining within the boundaries of officially permitted dissent, they increasingly laid blame for any inequalities on Kosovo’s officials, both Albanians and Serbs. Early on the core members of this group, namely Kosta Bulatović, Boško Budimirović, and Miroslav Šolević, jointly prepared the meetings and gradually shifted the agenda from local problems to the issues of broader political significance.(44) Parallel developments unfolded in other predominantly Serb settlements.

Although Priština’s and Kosovo’s officials periodically attended the meetings in Kosovo Polje, the debaters felt that the authorities would not take their problems seriously unless they gained broader support among Kosovo’s Serbs. Bulatović, Budimirović and Šolević, therefore, extended their activities beyond the official organizations and started mobilizing support at the grass roots. In 1985, they extended the core group to include informal advisors Zoran Grujić, a university professor, and Dušan Ristić, a former chief Kosovo official. They agreed that the post-1981 party’s policy aimed at ending the politics of inequality and emigration of Serbs was adequate and that they should simply press the authorities to implement the policy.(45) In late October 1985, the Kosovo Polje group sent a petition to officials in Yugoslavia and Serbia. They protested against discrimination against Kosovo Serbs and asked for the protection of their rights and the establishment of law and order. They pointed out that Kosovo was becoming increasingly “ethnically clean” of Serbs, accused Kosovo’s officials of the tacit approval of the forced migration of Serbs out of the region, and demanded that Yugoslavia’s and Serbia’s authorities bring that trend to a halt.(46) About 2,000 people signed the petition within ten days, and by April 1986, the number of signatories had multiplied several times.

In 1986, prominent activists initiated several highly visible protests and a series of small-scale local protest events. In late February, early April, and early November, they sent large delegations to the capital to meet officials of Yugoslavia and Serbia. The protest events also included a very visible protest march of several hundred people that unfolded under the label of collective emigration just before the party congress in May, as well as a number of large public meetings in Kosovo Polje, including one before Serbia’s party leader Ivan Stambolić.(47) There were also a series of small-scale protests across the autonomous province, mostly in the form of public meetings or outdoor public gatherings, organized in response to specific cases of nationalist-related violence. As people became aware of the advantages of noninstitutional action, they started petitioning local authorities, and sometimes managers of large state enterprises, to protest against discrimination at work.(48)

The main consequence of various post-1981 initiatives was the incipient and unconnected networks of activists and supporters in towns and villages inhabited by Serbs. Throughout 1986 the Kosovo Polje group, including the newly arrived Bogdan Kecman, worked to link the emerging local networks into a more powerful political force. Each of them took responsibility for a specific area of Kosovo and worked to strengthen links between the existing activists in the area, recruit new ones, and inform potential supporters about their initiatives. Before long the Kosovo Polje group could mobilize small groups of activists for protest events in and outside Kosovo within a few hours.(49) The activists’ demands, which initially focused on the lack of protection by the law enforcement agencies and courts and inequalities in the public sector, gradually evolved toward constitutional issues. The protesters asserted that if the provincial officials were unable to guarantee protection to Serbs then Kosovo should be brought back under the jurisdiction of Serbia’s authorities.(50)

Officials tolerated the mobilization for several reasons. Firstly, the highly decentralized political structure of socialist Yugoslavia, based partly on national rights and identities, encouraged groups to mobilize along national lines. After 1981 officials had already acknowledged the grievances of Kosovo Serbs and put emphasis on forestalling their emigration. Unlike Kosovo Albanian protesters in 1981, who had aimed at important constitutional change, Kosovo Serbs demanded little more than implementation of the existing party policy, which was much less likely to trigger repression. Serbs, though a minority group in Kosovo, constituted a majority in Serbia as a whole and a plurality in Yugoslavia, which rendered their concerns more urgent for Yugoslavia’s political class. Other political changes also mattered. The change of political generations in the first half of the 1980s brought younger politicians into the highest regional offices, and many of them felt that repression against ordinary people would go against the values of their generation. Growing elite disunity, rooted in the decentralized political structure and intensified during leadership succession, had already resulted in deadlock at the federal level and now thwarted attempts to reach a common position on the grassroots protest.

Secondly, the modest scale of mobilization and its limited potential for expansion, which sharply distinguished it from the 1981 mobilization of Kosovo Albanians, were also important. The movement of a minority group in a peripheral region hardly posed a threat to the regime. Officials were mainly concerned about the potential implications for political stability at the center because protesters’ demands were potentially highly resonant with Serbs outside Kosovo. Major protests of Kosovo Serbs that centered on the capital, such as the the May 1986 march, were therefore prevented. Officials often issued public threats to prominent activists, especially after the October 1985 petition, and Bulatović was briefly jailed in early April 1986. Thirdly, activists opted for moderate protest strategies and repeatedly stressed that their protest was not antisystemic. The protests often unfolded under the auspices of the SAWP partly because officials rarely tolerated openly noninstitutional initiatives and partly because the minority constituency of the movement ruled out large-scale discontent. The highly decentralized political structure of socialist Yugoslavia—including complex relationships between organs of Yugoslavia, Serbia, and Kosovo; a high level of local autonomy; and a large number of official organizations—provided space for the activists to organize, recruit new supporters and appeal for support.

From the early 1980s various groups of Kosovo Serbs sought contacts with influential people. Activists kept in touch with some earlier Kosovo Serb migrants, such as the managers of state enterprises and middle-rank officials in the capital and reporters for the Belgrade media based in the province. The confidants helped by identifying targets for appeal outside Kosovo because the activists knew little about institutional structure and informal political alliances, and they commented on protest strategies. Activists also established contact with dissident intellectuals, including Dobrica Ćosić, a well-known dissident novelist who had been purged from the party over the policy on Kosovo in 1968. Ćosić supported their cause and suggested that they make use of all legal channels. Other contacts from the Belgrade dissident circles urged radical action early on and claimed that protests of Kosovo Serbs in the capital would trigger demonstrations by hundreds of thousands.(51) Ćosić claims that he initiated the October 1985 petition at a meeting with a number of Kosovo Serbs but that a Belgrade journalist, an earlier Serb migrant from Kosovo, actually wrote the first draft.(52) This is probably true. Although Kosta Bulatović claimed that he initiated and drafted the petition, other prominent activists suspected that the Belgrade journalist, a friend of Bulatović, wrote the text.(53)

In January 1986, some 200 Belgrade-based intellectuals signed a petition supporting the cause of Kosovo Serbs, and the writers’ union subsequently held a number of protest meetings. A number of dissident intellectuals had already initiated a debate on Kosovo a year before, partly from the perspective of a revisionist history of Serb-Albanian relations and partly focusing on the current grievances of Kosovo Serbs.(54) Without doubt the dissident intellectuals’ actions alerted the general public in central Serbia to the concerns of Kosovo Serbs and made a strong impression on officials throughout Yugoslavia and Serbia. However, this was only a part of the intellectuals’ sweeping critique of the Communist regime and had little to do with either the creation or consolidation of the local protest networks. There was little difference between a few meetings of activists with Ćosić and their contacts with other potential allies, insofar as the activists initiated nearly all of them. The significance of the October 1985 petition, drafted by the intellectuals, did not lie in its content; the same demands had featured prominently in the activists’ discussions in the official organizations. The Kosovo Polje group had even drafted a similar petition two years before but collected only around seventy signatures.(55) The 1985 petition became important because nearly 2,000 Kosovo Serbs signed the text within ten days and thus demonstrated strong commitment to their cause despite a widespread fear of job loss or imprisonment.

Nor were the dissident intellectuals the only group that helped publicize the cause of the emerging movement. Kosovo Serb war veterans occasionally supported some activists’ demands and demanded resignations of various Kosovo officials, both Albanians and Serbs. Before initiating any major protest event, prominent activists tested their ideas with at least some of their confidants to find out whether the chosen targets and timing were appropriate. While seeking contact with, and advice from, various quarters, the protest organizers made decisions on protest strategies on their own. They firmly believed that people at the grassroots level understood their problems best and could make appropriate decisions. More importantly, they were painfully aware that they, and not their confidants, would have to suffer the consequences of any wrong moves.(56)

Kosovo under autonomy is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), the extracts of which will be published on TransConflict.com every Friday.


41) See for example Laura Silber and Allan Little, The Death of Yugoslavia (London: Penguin, BBC, 1996), 34–47, 58–59; Tim Judah, Kosovo: War and Revenge (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 47–55; Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 339–43; and Mertus, chapter 2.

42) Aleksandar Tijanić, Šta će biti s nama (Zagreb: Globus, 1988), 130–31.

43) For an account of one of the meetings see excerpts from the diary of Draza Marković in Mirko Djekić, Upotreba Srbije: optužbe i priznanja Draže Markovića (Belgrade: Besede, 1990), 209–10.

44) Boško Budimirović and Miroslav Šolević, interviews by N. Vladisavljevic, 15 and 17 July 2001, respectively.

45) Boško Budimirović and Miroslav Šolević, interviews, and Dušan Ristić in Miloš Antić, “Srbija nema rešenje za Kosovo,” Borba, 11 February 1993.

46) “Zahtevi 2016 stanovnika Kosova,” Književne novine, 15 December 1985.

47) For details see Vladisavljević, “Nationalism, Social Movement Theory, and the Grass Roots Movement of Kosovo Serbs,” 772–73.

48) See, for example, “Šta je ko rekao u Kosovu Polju: stenografske beleške razgovora u noći 24. i 25. IV 1987,” Borba, 8, 9–10, and 11 April 1987.

49) Boško Budimirović, Miroslav Šolević, and Bogdan Kecman, interviews by Vladisavljević, 29 August 2000.

50) See “Šta su Kosovci rekli u Skupštini,” NIN, 23 and 30 March, and 6 and 13 April 1986, and “Šta je ko rekao u Kosovu Polju.”

51) Miroslav Šolević and Boško Budimirović, interviews. See also Dobrica Ćosić, Piščevi zapisi, 1981–1991 (Belgrade: Filip Višnjić, 2002), 169–70, 186–88.

52) Ćosić, Piščevi zapisi, 169–70.

53) Boško Budimirović and Miroslav Šolević, interviews.

54) For details on the views and actions of the intellectuals in relation to Kosovo see Jasna Dragović-Soso, “Saviours of the Nation”: Serbia’s Intellectual Opposition and the Revival of Nationalism (London: Hurst, 2002), chapter 3. For the text of the intellectuals’ petition see ”Zahtev za pravnim poretkom na Kosovu,” in Aleksa Djilas, ed., Srpsko
pitanje (Belgrade: Politika, 1991), 260–61.

55) Šolević, interview.

56) Šolević, interview

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3 Responses

  1. Перун

    Mr. Pavlovic, started the story from the end. Problem beguns on 1830 , when Habsburgs created Albanians Nation and forcefull started to setlle Albanians Tribes on Kosovo. J. B. Tito mason comunist keep on that politics , and forcefully done etnhic cleansing of Serb population from Kosovo in same time he imported ethnic Albanians from Albania and settled them on Kosovo. On that way Habsurgs and Tito totaly changed ethnic structure on Kosovo. The demonstrations of Albanians on 1981 and after is only last phase of free mason and Vatican plan for Kosovo dated in begining of 19 century. This analises of Mr. Pavlovic is only mask for uninformed people and it is worthless to explain what happends on Kosovo!

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